- January 30th, 22:56
Reading: Thieves in the Night, by Arthur Koestler (1946). First read, 1957; reread partly for sentimental reasons, partly for perspective on the current Israel--Palestine mess.
A novel set in the Jewish community in Palestine, 1937--1939. Koestler himself lived there for a couple of years in the late '20s; he had been recruited to Zionism by a dueling fraternity in Vienna, and went there in the hope of settling in a kibbutz, but, like most things in Koestler's life, that didn't work out. However, he remained sympathetic to the Zionist cause, and wrote two books --- this one, and a nonfiction historical--political one, Promise and Fulfilment --- during the period when the establishment of the State of Israel was being debated. It is said that he had some influence on the eventual decision by the UN to partition Palestine and recognize the Jewish state.
Tho partisan, the book gives the arguments on all sides (Jews, Arabs, and Brits in all their various stripes, violent & nonviolent) --- remembering typical arguments was Koestler's strong point. If you want to imagine why you might want to be a terrorist, this is a good book to read. (If you want to imagine why you might want to be a torturer, you can read Darkness at Noon by the same author.) Here is the end of one argument:
"This is not a discussion but a spiral nebula," puffed Moshe. "It is heated, vaporous, and has no beginning and no end. If I understand rightly, Joseph has just discovered that the Government of Mr. Chamberlain would like to get rid of us. We know that. We also know that they can't. We have become too strong. We are no longer a promise on a piece of paper, but half a million men, one third of the country's population and more than two thirds of its economy. They let us down when the Arabs started shooting. We have shot it out with the Arabs and have proved that we are a match for them. We know our strength and have no need to get hysterical. We have built up what we have acre by acre and cow by cow. I for one know what my job is: to buy another acre and another cow. Good night."
The Israelis, you will have noticed, still attach great importance to Facts on the Ground.
Altho the book improved my political sophistication when I first read it, its greatest impact on me, as a communist, at the time was in its description of kibbutz life. At various crises in my youth I was seriously tempted to immigrate, but never had the courage to make an approach. When American communes sprang up, however, it was only a matter of time before I joined one (Twin Oaks, 1972--1981). It turned out that I, like Koestler, did not have the grit to be useful in building community over the long term. It has also since turned out that such experiments, tho they would be immensely beneficial if they flourished, have not been successful in providing an alternative economic model or in remedying the deficiencies of the family as an institution for propagating the species in the industrial age. They have been tolerated in many countries, including the US, and in Israel they were actually part of the establishment (in both senses), but they have not been able to overcome our tribal instincts or the premium that modern cultures place on mobility.
As to the Zionist experiment, I think in hindsight that it was badly mistaken of the Jews to reinsert themselves into the atavistic category of "nation" and into a region that was already an ethnic pest zone. However, by reading Koestler's book you can see why it seemed sensible at the time, even to people who in principle were hostile to nationalism.
The result is that the Israelis are now part of a problem that, as far as I can tell, has no solution, if by "solution" you mean a possible outcome of a kind that decent people might wish for. What is peculiar about ethnic pest zones (the Middle East, Northern Ireland, Cyprus, much of Africa) is not that they contain wicked and foolish people, but that wicked and foolish people hold the balance of power, because everyone has ample reason to mistrust the enemy and to continue to give the enemy reason for mistrust. (I would be delighted to be proved wrong about this. Has any region in that situation ever escaped it? I suppose one could argue Britain, and conceive some hope for South Africa.) It is unreasonable to expect people on either side to be reasonable. Fortunately, I am not a politician and do not have to deal practically with that agony. In thinking about such things I can therefore amuse myself with two desperate fantasies:
(1) IIWD: What would I do if I were dictator --- if everybody concerned suddenly said "Mr Fineman, we are sick of this; tell us exactly what to do, and we will do it"?
(2) LEIO: What is the least evil imaginable outcome (however improbable) in the actual situation?
IIWD: Recombine Palestine (Israel & the occupied territories) and Jordan into a UN mandate coterminous with the original British mandate. Give it a republican government subject to UN oversight and a permanent international occupation force sufficient to keep the peace. Move the UN headquarters to Jerusalem. Guarantee rights of the various religious and linguistic communities, but forbid vengeful propaganda.
LEIO: "Jordan is Palestine". Israel annexes the so-called occupied territories and drives out most of the Arabs, mostly into Jordan. The only thing that can be said for this is that it would probably be less hideous than the status quo. It would also be a terrible crime, comparable to the so-called rectification of frontiers in Europe following W.W. II. And it would not lead to peace in the long run; it would only encourage the worst people in Israel to agitate further expansion (and, of course, to multiply vengeful motives on the other side). An important branch of Zionism, called Revisionism --- an ancestor of the now dominant Likud --- for almost a century has called for a Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan (it even has a song about it).
I have occasionally indulged a much nastier fantasy about such zones: a salutory hoax. Invent, in some detail, a secret UN plan to demarcate the zone and sterilize it with hydrogen bombs; then arrange for leaks. No sane person would believe such a thing, but the people who might believe it are the ones who most need demoralizing.